Card sharp

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The Cardsharps (ca. 1594) by Caravaggio
Le Tricheur à l'as de carreau [fr] (1635) by Georges de La Tour

A card sharp (also card shark, sometimes hyphenated or spelled as a single word) is a person who uses skill and/or deception to win at card games (such as poker). "Sharp" and "shark" spellings have varied over time and by region.

The label is not always intended as pejorative, and is sometimes used to refer to practitioners of card tricks for entertainment purposes. In general usage, principally in American English and more commonly with the "shark" spelling, the term has also taken on the meaning of an expert card gambler who takes advantage of less-skilled players, also called an "advantage player", without any implication of actual cheating at cards, in much the same way that "pool shark" or "pool hustler" can (especially when used by non-players) be intended to refer to a skilled player rather than a cheater or swindler. The synonym to "card sharp", "blackleg", when used with reference to card-playing and swindlers, has pejorative connotations.[1]

A card sharp or shark (by either of the gambling-related definitions) may be a "rounder" who travels, seeking out high-stakes games in which to gamble.

Etymology and usage[edit]

Card-sharpers by Candlelight (1845) by Feliks Pęczarski, National Museum in Warsaw

According to the prevailing etymological theory, the term "shark", originally meaning "parasite" or "one who preys upon others"(cf. loan shark), derives from German Schorke or Schurke ('rogue' or 'rascal'), as did the English word "shirk[er]". "Sharp" developed in the 17th century from this meaning of "shark" (as apparently did the use of "shark" as a name for the fish), but the phrase "card sharp" predates the variant "card shark".[2][3][4][5][6] The original connotation was negative, meaning "swindler" or "cheat", regardless of spelling, with the more positive connotations of "expert" or "skilled player" arising later, and not supplanting the negative ones.[2][4][7][8] "Card sharp" and "card shark" are synonymous,[3][4][6][9][10] although American English is somewhat, but informally, beginning to favor "shark" as a positive term versus "sharp" as a negative one.[6][11][12] (However, not all American dictionaries agree with this,[4] and some suggest the opposite.)[13]

Phrasefinder puts "card sharp" (or "-sharper") as the slightly earlier usage, with an 1859 citation for "card-sharper" and "card-sharp" in both Britain and in the US, while "card-shark" is cited to 1893 in the US.[14]


Card sharps who cheat or perform tricks use methods to keep control of the order of the cards or sometimes to control one specific card. Many of these methods employ sleight of hand. Essential skills are false shuffles and false cuts that appear to mix the deck but actually leave the cards in the same order. More advanced techniques include culling (manipulating desired cards to the top or bottom of the deck), and stacking (putting desired cards in position to be dealt).[citation needed]

Dealing the cards can also be manipulated. Once a desired card or cards are located they can be controlled and dealt as the cheater wishes. This is called a false dealing; if a card is dealt from the bottom it is called bottom dealing and if it is second from the top it is called second dealing. Two cards could be dealt as one or the second card from the bottom could be dealt, hence the Greek deal and double deals. Dealing may also be done from the middle of the deck, known as the middle deal or center deal, but is almost always performed as a display of skill rather than actual cheating.[15][16]

In popular culture[edit]


  • Gambit, fictional Marvel superhero


Card sharps are common characters in caper films, since the questionable legality of their hobby also plays well with that of their occupation. Notable examples films featuring card sharps are:


  • Stage magician and actor Harry Anderson (of Night Court fame) made several appearances on Cheers as card sharp "Harry the Hat".
  • In Friends season 2, episode 10, "The One with Russ", Ross debates with his doppelgänger Russ about the correctness of the term "card shark" vs. "card sharp".
  • Homicide: Life on the Street season 7, episode 3, "Just an Old-fashioned Love Song", features the homicide investigation of a woman who made a living as a card sharp, but whose gambling on other games sank her into substantial debt, with dire consequences for herself and her extended family.
  • On Mission: Impossible, members of the Impossible Missions Force (particularly Rollin Hand), would often use their card sharp skills as part of a mission.
  • On Hogan's Heroes, Cpl. Peter Newkirk (Richard Dawson) served as the group's card sharp, in addition to being a sleight-of-hand expert, magician, forger, safe-cracker, lock-picker, pick-pocket, voice impersonator, and all-around conman.
  • In Prison Break, the character Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell is an expert card sharp, who says, "there are maybe five people in this country who can do what I do with a deck of cards." T-Bag uses this skill successfully in season 1, episode 18, "Bluff".
  • Sanford and Son featured an episode wherein card sharps defeated Lamont at poker. Fred was able to defeat the card sharps and win Lamont's money back, in season 2, episode 6, aired October 27, 1972.
  • In the Japanese anime Cowboy Bebop, characters Fay Valentine and Spike Spiegel both exhibit card sharping skills, usually at the expense of their partner, Jet Black.
  • In Arrow season 1, episode 21, "The Undertaking", Felicity Smoak poses as a card sharp, so that she and Oliver can infiltrate a private casino to extort information about Walter.
  • In Downton Abbey series 4, episode 3, Edith's love interest Mr. Gregson expresses his pleasure in beating a "card sharp", Mr Sampson, who was a card sharp of the first degree.
  • In Person of Interest season 2, episode 18, "All In", Harold Finch and John Reese are given information about a former card sharp who is forced into being a mule for a casino owner and drug dealer by picking up money from a dead drop and intentionally losing it in his casino.
  • In the British reality TV show The Real Hustle, co-host Paul Wilson is an expert card mechanic who uses his skills to demonstrate scams.
  • In I Dream of Jeannie season 5, episode 25, "One Genie Beats Four of a Kind", Jeannie helping Tony and Roger at their poker games leads others, including Dr. Bellows and a fellow astronaut, to believe they are card sharps. To compound things, the other astronaut is actually a mobster in disguise who intends to rub out Roger (whom he suspects is the real card sharp), until Jeannie turns the tables on him.
  • The title of the American game show Card Sharks is a play on the phrase "card sharps".

Video games[edit]

  • The antagonist Luxord, of Organization XIII in Kingdom Hearts II, is a gambler who fights with dice and cards, and uses card tricks as the majority of his attacks.
  • In League of Legends, the champion Twisted Fate is a card sharp. His attacks consist of throwing magical cards and using his skills to earn extra gold.
  • The 2022 Devolver Digital Title, Card Shark, centers on the exploits of the player-controlled titular character, operating various card gambling cons in 18th-century France.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "blackleg". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ a b Harper, Douglas (2001). "Online Etymology Dictionary search results". entries "shark" & "sharp". Retrieved 2007-07-08. – gives the negative meaning only, for both
  3. ^ a b Hawkins, Joyce M.; Allen, Robert, eds. (1991). The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary. New York: Clarendon Press. p. 1334. ISBN 0-19-861248-6. – gives only the negative meaning for both; labels negative verb "to sharp" archaic.
  4. ^ a b c d Chapman, Robert L., ed. (1983). New Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Harper & Row. p. 380. – gives both positive and negative meanings for both "shark" and "sharp", labels them synonymous in this context, and indicates that positive sense of "shark" arose much later than the negative meaning, and later than it did for "sharp"
  5. ^ Partridge, Eric (1983). Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House. p. 614. ISBN 0-517-41425-2. – gives only negative meaning for "shark", and gives "sharper" as synonymous, without addressing the shorter form "sharp"
  6. ^ a b c McKechnie, Jean L., ed. (1971). Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 274, 1668. ISBN 0-671-41819-X. – gives both meanings for both terms and even for the obsolete "sharker", but provides only the swindler definition for "card sharp" and both definitions for the "card shark" version, thus contradicting itself at the "sharp" entry
  7. ^ Onions, C. T., ed. (1994). The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. New York: Oxford at the Clarendon Press. p. 817. ISBN 0-19-861112-9. – gives only the negative meaning for both "shark" and "sharp"
  8. ^ Weekley, Ernest; Scott, Anne, eds. (1911). New Gem Dictionary of the English Language. London: Collins. p. 418. – current around time that "shark" gained a positive sense, gives only negative meaning for both
  9. ^ Kipfer, Barabara Ann; Princeton Language Institute, eds. (1999). Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus in Dictionary Form (2nd ed.). New York: Dell Publishing. pp. 306, 786. ISBN 0-440-23513-8. – gives both meanings for both
  10. ^ "Search results". Dictionary.Reference com Unabridged (v1.1 ed.). Lexico Publishing Group. 2007. "sharp" dfn. 36 & 37, and "shark" dfn. 2-1 & 2-2. Retrieved 2007-07-08. – gives both meanings for both, with negative meaning being primary for both, positive meanings informal
  11. ^ Soukhanov, Anne H., ed. (1994). Webster's II: New Riverside Dictionary. Boston: Riverside Pub. Co. p. 1072. ISBN 0-395-33957-X. – gives both for "shark", only negative for "sharp" and "sharper"
  12. ^ Guralnik, David B., ed. (1982). Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (Revised ed.). New York: Warner Books. p. 547. ISBN 0-446-31450-1. – gives both for "shark", only negative for "sharp"
  13. ^ "American Heritage Dictionary of the English language". (online 4th ed.). Houghton Mifflin. 2006. "sharp" dfn. noun 3, and "shark" dfn. noun 2. Retrieved 2007-07-08. – gives both meanings for both, with positive being primary for "sharp" but negative for "shark"
  14. ^ Martin, Gary. "The Meaning and Origin of the Expression: Card-sharp", The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 30 Sept. 2021.
  15. ^ Maskelyne, John Nevil (1983). Sharps and Flats. Casino Press. ISBN 0-87019-049-0.
  16. ^ Johnson, Karl (2005). The Magician and the Cardsharp: The Search for America's Greatest Sleight-of-hand Artist. Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 0-8050-7406-6.

External links[edit]